How the BBC’s ‘Hemingway’ exemplifies the contribution biographical study can make to history

I think it’s important, first, to say what I’m aiming to do in this piece.

Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s epic six-part documentary ‘Hemingway’ on the BBC is an exhilarating yet tragic walk through the life of one of America’s greatest writers. The literary analysis of Michael Katakis and the brilliantly astute Edna O’Brien along with readings by actors Jeff Daniels and Meryl Streep capture the genius in both Hemingway’s writing style and his ideas.

Perhaps it was due to not having read any Hemingway beforehand, but I saw this series more as an historical biography than a literary critique. Or perhaps I’m giving myself too much credit. Either way, this piece is focused on Burns and Novick’s wonderful example of what biographical study can bring to the work of history. By biographical study, I do not mean ‘great man/woman’ history. I mean following a subject in history not attempting to argue a subject made history.

Hemingway and his wife Pauline in the 1930s.

The way we, and the books we read, usually approach history is as a third-person observer with a wider perspective and knowledge than our subjects allowing us to explain historical actions and events on the whole stage. With a biography, our perspective narrows to one character in the drama, their development, their motives, their struggle and the effects of events on them. Though often the third-person register must remain, sometimes biography can allow us to go beyond even this; rather than simply zooming in, a subject like Hemingway in works like ‘‘A Moveable Feast’’, can also give us first-person accounts not just of what he saw, but how he saw it, how he felt about it and how it affected him.

Instead of these sources being used to build a wider picture of the age, in biography they build a deeper picture of the subject. It is primarily this depth of humanity that biographical study can provide to history and that the ‘Hemingway’ documentary series provides to the first half of the 20th century.

Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 and died in 1961. The series breaks his life into 6 episodes taking us from an intrepid boy from Illinois yelling, ‘‘ ‘fraid of nothin’! ’’ and whose mother enjoyed dressing him and his sister either as twin girls or twin boys, all the way to a 61-year-old man mentally and physically bruised by a legendary and traumatic life calling out to his fourth wife in their Idaho retreat, ‘‘Goodnight, my kitten’’ hours before taking his own life. It is through this journey, from one Hemingway to the other, that the series offers an unrelenting portrait of how one subject can develop in history.

To take just one of countless examples, Hemingway’s joining of the Red Cross at 18, so as to serve in the Great War but also interrupting the beginnings of a journalistic career in Kansas, does not just exemplify the millions of young lives irrevocably changed by the conflict. Instead, the biographical perspective means the true depth of the war’s effects on an individual can be given central importance.

After being struck by over 200 pieces of shrapnel from an enemy mortar on the Alpine Front, Hemingway wrote, ‘‘I died then. I felt my soul, or something, coming right out of my body.’’ From a letter sent home whilst recovering in hospital, we can see both the pride and the morbid realism with which Hemingway was left; he writes both, ‘‘It does give you an awfully satisfactory feeling being wounded, it’s getting beaten up in a good cause’’ and ‘‘there are no heroes in this war, all the heroes are dead’’. Whilst Hemingway’s experience can certainly be widened to represent that Lost Generation, the biographic structure means it can also be deepened, allowing us to see not only that the conflict left scars, but also the human complexities and contradictions of these scars. Hemingway came home both proudly embellishing his war adventures and achievements, whilst also, in the words of a friend, being ‘‘figuratively, as well as literally, shot to pieces’’. 

Biographical history reminds us, therefore, that the great events and traumas of history happen to deeply complex individuals who go on with their lives unable to shut the book as we can. Through the series, other monumental events that Hemingway lived through, like the Spanish Civil War, D-Day and the Cuban Revolution, drive home this point.

History is not, however, just a procession of events. It is also the intangible development social attitudes and, again, biography can aid our understanding. Perhaps unexpectedly, Hemingway is, in some ways, the perfect subject to explore both gender and mental health in the early 20th century.

Often seen as the epitome of a ‘man’, forever hunting, drinking, fishing and fighting, Hemingway’s youthful experience with androgyny and lifelong experimentation with sexual gender roles makes the reality a lot more complex. The gender-identity he presented to the world and the one he kept hidden provides a most rich, human base from which to explore the gender politics of the age. The blame Hemingway placed on Gregory for his mother’s, and Hemingway’s second wife’s, death, after his son had been arrested for wearing drag in a ladies’ bathroom, can be seen as a reflection of Hemingway’s own, always-unresolved, relationship with gender norms.

Hemingway playing with cats with his sons.
Ernest Hemingway and sons Patrick (left) and Gregory, with cats. Taken Novermber 1946 in San Francisco de Paula, Cuba. Photograph in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

His struggle with his mental health, since his father’s suicide and throughout the countless traumas of his life, is masterfully and thoughtfully explored and one can, again, see the effects of the social attitudes of the time. Hemingway refused to go to any psychiatric hospital, despite his worsening ‘‘psychotic depression’’, because he didn’t want to accept or reveal his mental fragility. Instead, he was treated under the guise of high blood pressure. So desperate to appear well and escape treatment, after six weeks he charmed his way out of hospital only to tragically take his own life just months later.

It’s easy to paint a subject’s struggle with the attitudes of their age as a battle against an external enemy. However, the series brilliantly demonstrates how contemporary attitudes can be internalised meaning the battles rage within the subject. In Hemingway’s case, it was the struggle between his self-made ‘‘myth’’ and the fragility beneath. It was precisely the biographical nature of the programme that allowed for this depth to emerge, and it is this depth that allows us to humanise history; we can, by exploring the complexities of one man and the social attitudes of one age, realise that all subjects of history have, to a greater or lesser extent, the same depth. This is a fact often missed in our wide, third-person histories.

So, what can a biographical focus bring to the work of history? Broadly two things: first, it gives us a better understanding of ‘great’ events in history by reminding us that those subject to these events are complex and live on with their effects; second, it can humanise the long and often traumatic process through which social attitudes change by revealing the internalised struggle of our historical subjects.

Biographical study provides history with a human depth that can be lost in the regular, wide-lens approach. There are few deeper and more complex historical subjects than Ernest Hemingway, a fact that allows Burns and Novick to create a simultaneously epic and intimate series and an exemplar for biographical history.

All that’s left for me to do is actually read some Hemingway!

Title Image: Ernest Hemingway in Cuba, 1940, recolorised by Jecinci on Reddit.